Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Please confirm that you are happy to hear from The Church of Scotland:

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit the Privacy Policy on our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: The Church of Scotland's first Missionary

Looking Back

Friday July 5 2013

Looking Back: The Church of Scotland's First Missionary

An extract from Life and Work of September 1905, telling the extraordinary life story of Alexander Shields

By the Rev. W. S. CROCKETT, Tweedsmuir.

THERE will be surprise, doubtless, at the heading of this sketch. Was not Dr. Alexander Duff – beloved of all the Churches – the first missionary of the Church of Scotland? But a hundred and thirty years before Duff sailed for India, the Church was touched with a measure of missionary inspiration.

It was one of those periods of excitement which have more than once passed across the country – an excitement not born of religion, but earth-bound enough. A certain William Paterson conceived the idea of a vast Scots colony on the narrow neck of land famous in modern times as the Isthmus of Panama, but then known as the Isthmus of Darien.

On the 25th July, 1698, five ships with 1200 passengers sailed from Leith for the new colony. The next year a second contingent of 1500 followed. With them were four ministers of the Church, who had been specially set apart by the General Assembly to accompany the expedition-our first Colonial Mission; and at the same time, to preach the Gospel to the Darien natives-our first Foreign Mission. The Church had its first foreign missionary in Alexander Shields, the leader of that little band.

The life-story of Alexander Shields is profoundly interesting. He was born at Haughhead, on the Leader, in Earlston Parish, in the year 1661. His father was James Shields, a miller, a native of the locality. Of his boyhood nothing is known. Our chief authority for his later life is that perennial classic of the countryside, Howie of Lochgoin’s Scots Worthies, first published in 1775. An unusually apt scholar, Shields graduated M.A., “with no small applause,” whilst yet in his fifteenth year. He studied divinity at Edinburgh under Lawrence Charteris, and, like many of the Scots students of his time, passed to Holland, where he enrolled in the classes of theology at Utrecht. On returning to Great Britain, he made his way to London, was amanuensis to Dr. John Owen, and came into close touch with some of the leading Puritans, who persuaded him to accept license as a preacher. In 1684 he was ordained as minister of a congregation meeting in the Embroiderers Hall.

But his Covenanting instincts soon led him to the wrong side politically and ecclesiastically, and he was apprehended on the 11th January, 1685 – the killing year.  On the death of Charles II. Shields was sent to Scotland, and kept for a time in the Edinburgh Tolbooth. Then, after fourteen months in the Bass dungeons, he was again brought to Edinburgh, and offered his liberty, on condition that he would cease from preaching and “live orderly.” That he declined to do, and was committed to the Tolbooth, whence he managed to escape in female disguise towards the end of November 1686. The following month he cast in his lot with James Renwick, whose biographer he became. The two were fast friends, and collaborated in writing the Informatory Vindication, for which Renwick was condemned.  Shields was asked to superintend its publication, but failed to find a printer. He crossed to Holland, saw the work through the press there, and busied himself at the same time with the completion of his own best-known and ponderous essay, A Hind Let Loose.

After the Revolution Shields separated himself from the Society People, and joined the Church of Scotland. He acted as Chaplain to the Cameronian Regiment serving in the Netherlands, and was present at Namur and Steinkirk. On the Peace at Ryswick, in 1697, he returned home, and was called to the Second Charge at St. Andrews. In 1699 he was appointed to lead the missionary deputation to Darien. A memorial to the General Assembly besought that ministers might be sent to “instruct and edify our countrymen in the said colony, and who also might, through the blessing of God, be useful in propagating the glorious light of the Gospel among the pagan nations, and contribute to their conversion.” We find the Commissioner of Assembly accordingly, on 21st July, charging Shields and his companions “particularly that you labour among the natives for their instruction and conversion, as you have access.”

Here, surely, was the first real call to the Church from the “regions beyond,” and its first real response to send labourers into the great world-harvest. The Darien expedition has at least one bit of brightness in its otherwise sombre sky.

Shields’ ministry abroad was brief and unhappy. The Assembly had acted in ignorance of the true state of matters, and the mission was clouded from the very moment of his landing. “It is evident,” says Howie, “that Shields’ spirit was quite sunk with the divisions, impiety, and unrighteousness of too many of that handful, and at last was sadly crushed with the fatal disappointment of the undertaking, through the conduct of the existing Government, which, had it been faithfully and well managed, might have been of great advantage to this nation, as well as to the Christian religion.”

Shields died in Jamaica, on his way home to St. Andrews. He was not more than half a year in the colony. A colleague, who lived to a good old age, the sole survivor of the proposed  Presbytery of Caledonia,-Francis Borland, in his Memoirs of Darien, has this touching passage: “Among others of our countrymen that died here in Jamaica, the Reverend Mr. Alexander Shields was one. He departed this life at Port Royal, on 14th June, of a violent and malignant fever, much lamented by all who knew his worth and parts, and had the occasion of his acquaintance. He had been heart-weary and broken with this company of men among whom he had laboured and conversed so long with so little success, and therefore left them and went up to Port Royal, designing, it seems to take passage thence homeward by the way of London. But men propose; and God disposeth; for he had now done his work, and it pleased his Master here to call for him, and to put an end to his weary and troublesome pilgrimage in this spot of our Lord’s earth; and now he rests from his labours, and his works follow him.”


Looking Back menu